Information presented in this article may be triggering to some people. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
What Is Trauma Therapy?
Trauma therapy is a form of therapy that can help you deal with the emotional response caused by a traumatic event.
“Over 50% of people experience at least one trauma in their lives. Trauma can include a wide range of situations, ranging from serious injury, sexual violence, and life-threatening events, to chronic abuse and neglect, being bullied, and homelessness,” says Kelly Workman, PsyD, a psychologist at Columbia University Medical Center who specializes in treating trauma.
Kelly Workman, PsyD
While not all trauma survivors experience long-term negative consequences, we know that the experience of trauma can profoundly affect someone’s psychological, social, physical, occupational, and financial functioning.
This form of therapy can help you if you are unable to cope with the trauma you experienced, or if it’s affecting your ability to function.
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Types of Trauma Therapy
There are multiple types of therapy that can help treat trauma. Workman lists some of the forms of therapy a mental health practitioner may use to help you overcome trauma-related issues and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
- Prolonged exposure (PE): This form of therapy involves exposing you to the source of your fear, until you are not afraid of it anymore.
- Cognitive processing therapy (CPT): CPT involves challenging your perspective about why the traumatic event occurred and the thoughts and beliefs you’ve developed since. This form of therapy can be performed in an individual or group setting.
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy (TF-CBT): This form of therapy is for children and adolescents. It can help address inaccurate beliefs and unhealthy behavior patterns.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): This form of treatment involves using rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation to help release emotions that have been blocked by trauma.
PE and CPT are the front-line treatments for trauma as they have the most research evidence demonstrating their effectiveness, according to Workman.
“Both treatments can be completed in three to four months, which is relatively brief compared to the length of time some people endure immense suffering due to experiencing trauma,” says Workman. She notes that both treatments work well in-person as well as online.
According to Workman, an advantage of CPT is that it can be conducted with or without a description of the actual trauma, which can be helpful if you don’t remember the trauma or don’t want to talk about it.
Moreover, Workman says TF-CBT and EMDR can also help reduce PTSD symptoms, which can lead to improvements in overall functioning and quality of life.
The techniques used to treat trauma can vary depending on the type of therapy. Workman outlines some techniques your therapist might employ.
- Imaginal exposure: This is an exposure technique where you imagine the trauma and describe it out loud to your therapist. If you have been avoiding thoughts or memories related to the trauma you faced, this technique helps you confront it.
- In vivo exposure: This is also an exposure therapy technique. It occurs outside the therapy session, in real-life situations. It is intended to help you gradually approach day-to-day situations you may avoid because of the trauma associated with them.
- Written account: Your therapist may ask you to write a descriptive account of the trauma you have experienced.
- Impact statement: A common CPT technique is writing an impact statement that explains why you believe the traumatic event occurred and the impact it has had on your life.
- Cognitive restructuring strategies: CPT can also involve cognitive restructuring strategies that help you change unhelpful thoughts into more helpful thoughts.
What Trauma Therapy Can Help With
Trauma therapy can help you cope with trauma, whether it’s caused by a one-time event, or an ongoing or long-lasting situation.
These are some common forms of trauma that therapy can address; however it’s important to note that trauma can include any event or experience that causes emotional or psychological harm.
“People from minoritized backgrounds such as BIPOC may also experience historical trauma, from events such as slavery and colonization, as well as intergenerational trauma, which is when the effects of trauma are passed down from one generation to the next,” says Workman.
Benefits of Trauma Therapy
Trauma therapy can help you address the traumatic event and process your feelings and emotions. It can give you the opportunity to face your fears in a safe space and learn coping skills that can help you function on a day-to-day basis.
Reduce Fear and Avoidance
Trauma can instill fear and cause you to avoid people, places, or things that remind you of the traumatic experience, which can make it difficult for you to function. For instance, a person who was involved in a car accident on a freeway may avoid driving on freeways or be afraid to get into a car at all, says Workman.
Workman says therapy can help you confront the trauma memory and overcome your fears.
Improve Coping Skills
“PTSD and trauma-related issues are maintained by problematic beliefs such as ‘I’m incapable of coping with this,’” says Workman. Trauma therapy can help equip you with the confidence and coping skills you need to function.
Traumatic events can disrupt your sense of safety and make it difficult for you to trust others.
With therapy, someone who developed the belief “It’s not safe to trust anyone” may learn to start thinking “Even though I was hurt in the past, most people are good and trustworthy and it’s okay to give people a chance,” says Workman.
Challenge Problematic Beliefs
Therapy can help challenge problematic thought patterns you may have developed about yourself and the world around you, to help you make sense of why the traumatic event occurred, says Workman.
For instance, Workman says someone who started to believe “I must be a bad person because bad things shouldn’t happen to good people” may instead learn to think “Sometimes bad things happen to good people who did nothing to cause it. I am still a good person even if something bad happened to me.”
Therapy can help disconfirm problematic beliefs, help you develop a new perspective about the traumatic experience, and reduce the intensity of trauma-related emotions such as shame and guilt, says Workman.
People who have experienced trauma and have repeatedly been told that their experiences, characteristics, or emotional reactions are unreasonable and unacceptable may suffer further and develop chronic difficulties, says Workman. She says an example would be being blamed or verbally abused after disclosing a trauma.
Therapy can help validate your experiences and offer the understanding and acceptance you need to start healing.
According to a 2018 study, there is a substantial amount of evidence that trauma-focused therapies like PE, CPT, and CBT that address memories, thoughts, and feelings related to a traumatic event are effectively able to treat PTSD.
A 2017 study found that veterans who participated in trauma management therapy saw a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms like anger, guilt, depression, difficulty sleeping, and social isolation. These benefits were sustained even six months after the treatment was completed.
Things to Consider
According to Workman, a trauma therapist may consider several factors when assessing your readiness for trauma therapy, which can include:
- Commitment level: It is essential to have a strong commitment to complete the treatment from start to finish because stopping the treatment midway can actually increase PTSD symptoms and cause the person to become more entrenched in trauma-related beliefs and avoidance.
- Suicide risk: The person should have had no suicide attempts or self-harm incidents in the past two months. For individuals at high risk of suicide or self-harm, PE can be delivered in combination with Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Since safety is a top priority, DBT would first be used to address any suicidal or self-harm inclinations before beginning the trauma part of treatment.
- Coping skills: The person will need coping skills to complete exposure therapy safely and effectively. Coping skills are necessary for managing intense emotions without relying on emotional suppression and behaviors such as substance use or going to bed for the rest of the day.
How to Get Started
If you have experienced some form of trauma and want to seek treatment for it, look for a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who specializes in this form of therapy.
If you are already seeing a mental healthcare provider for your symptoms, they may be able to refer you to a specialist. If you are a veteran, there are local and national organizations that offer therapy and resources for trauma and PTSD.
For BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks, Workman says it is important to work with a therapist who is well-versed on the effects of discrimination, oppression, and inequality and can demonstrate competence in discussing racism, racial trauma, cultural issues, and historical and intergenerational trauma.
When you reach out to a practitioner who specializes in trauma treatment, in addition to asking for details of your medication, medical history, and insurance plan, they may also assess you to determine whether trauma therapy is appropriate for you at the moment and which form of treatment would work best.
You can work with your mental healthcare provider to decide the goals of therapy and work out a treatment plan accordingly.
A Word From Verywell
It is normal to experience emotions like shock and denial if you have experienced or witnessed something terrible. You may also have headaches, nausea, flashbacks, and unpredictable emotions.
However, if you are unable to cope with the symptoms you’re experiencing, or if they are interfering with your ability to function on a day-to-day basis, trauma therapy can help.
Trauma therapy can help you process the trauma, face your fears, and equip you with coping skills, so that you are able to cope and live a meaningful life.